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Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.


Tuning the Preacher's Ear

How good reading helps good preaching.

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Preachers who read widely get the same benefits out of it as the rest of us, but their needs may be more acute. Imagine standing up weekly in front of a mixed audience and speaking to it engagingly about things of final significance. God, sin, grace, the beauty of creation, life, death, justice, the kingdom of God, faith, hope, love, the death of Jesus, compassion, peace, comfort, the miracle of Easter, pilgrimage, aging, wonder, union with Christ, terror, alienation, hell, the joy of heaven, longing, betrayal, redemption—the list of topics on the preacher's agenda intimidates all but the foolish. And I've written only a partial list because the Bible is such a big book.

Now add that congregations send preachers to the Bible not just to dig up its treasures and lay them out on Sunday morning, but also to do so in such a way that, with the Holy Spirit blowing in the room, the minister's words may bring God's word to us.

This intolerable calling requires courage and humility. It requires a life full of God. It also requires that the preacher become as wise as possible. Even an expository preacher has to become a kind of sage, a person who is conversant on the range of biblical topics and who can speak on them to healthy spiritual effect. In this calling, the Bible itself is the preacher's first teacher. His experience of life helps a lot. So does the preacher's wide reading of fine writers—storytellers, biographers, poets, journalists. Reading them tends to make the preacher wiser, which is perhaps, beyond sheer delight, the principal reason for doing so.

Or maybe not. Maybe an even more basic reason for the preacher to read fine writers (or listen to fine speakers) is that they will tune the preacher's ear for language, which is his first tool. From the masters of language the preacher can learn conciseness, rhythm, euphony, and rhetorical devices such as consonance. He can learn to change up his sentence length and sentence functions. He can learn Ring Lardner's sentence, "'Shut up,' he explained."

From fine writers the preacher can learn one skill that lies beneath all the others. I mean diction. Diction includes pronunciation, and to learn it well, preachers need to listen to good pronouncers. We'd like our preacher to say "terrorist" instead of "ter-rist," and we'd like her to say "nuclear" instead of "nucular." In other words we'd like her to listen to some U.S. presidents more than to others.

But the other half of good diction is word choice, and from the masters of it blessings flow. Precision and coherence and transparency depend on it, of course, but so does everything else in a sermon. Saying good preaching depends on good diction is a little like saying good cooking depends on choosing good ingredients.

Here I'll focus on just two advantages of good diction: that it lets the preacher choose his rhetorical register, whether highbrow or lowbrow; and that it gives our preacher a whole world of power and beauty opened up by the evocativeness of the words he chooses.

To think about the preacher's rhetorical register, let's consider a few sentences from the title sermon in Barbara Brown Taylor's volume Home by Another Way:

[The three wise men] were all glad for a reason to get out of town—because that was clearly where the star was calling them, out—away from everything they knew how to manage and survive, out from under the reputations they had built for themselves, the high expectations, the disappointing returns. And so they set out, one by one, each believing that he was the only one with a star in his eye until they all ran into one another on the road to Jerusalem.[1]

The wise men, says Taylor, were "glad for a reason to get out of town." The phrase sits right in the middle of the formality/informality scale, so that in many contexts it will sound neither stuffy on the high side nor slangy on the low. Imagine possible alternatives. What if Taylor's wise men were "gratified at the opportunity to venture forth from their hamlet," or what if they "just got so hyper to be so outta there"? No, says Taylor, they are "glad for a reason to get out of town."

The register here is neither tuxedo formal nor tank-top casual. We might call it "upscale colloquial" or "business casual," and add that it will engage a great many listeners, which is why Taylor wanted to use it. Her good choice makes the sermon formal enough to be serious, and casual enough to be comfortable to wear.

To gain command of their pitch on the formality/informality scale, preachers can learn a lot from reading Robert Jacks' classic technique book titled Just Say the Word: Writing for the Ear (Eerdmans, 1996). Jacks tells us how to write for the ear, not the eye. He wants us preachers to prepare sermons that speak naturally, using dialogue and sentence fragments just as a person would in good conversation. Recommending something like upscale colloquial, Jacks cautions preachers against both high school hall-speak and an essay-like formality, expressed not only by means of the usual adverb suspects ("whence," "thence," "wherefore") but also by the use of so innocent a coordinating conjunction as "for." According to Jacks, we might not notice the awkward formality of this conjunction in a preached sentence till we stop to think about it. Our preacher says "Let us trust Jesus for we know he dies for us." We don't stop to think that in ordinary speech none of us talks like that. None of us says "Let's go to Grancino's tonight, dear, for we know their rigatoni is terrific."

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